MIND MELD: The Best Sword & Sorcery Stories
My recent and long overdue discovery of Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories made me wonder about other good sword and sorcery stories, so this week’s panelists were asked:
Check out their excellent suggestions…(and share some of your own!)
I’ve read and enjoyed a lot of sword and sorcery, including the Fafhrd and Grey Mouser series, and Robert E. Howard’s Dark Agnes stories. One of my earliest favorites was Charles Saunders’ Dossouye stories, which first appeared in the anthologies Amazons! and Sword and Sorceress in the early 80s. When I read the first one, “Agbewe’s Sword,” I was about fifteen years old and desperately looking for strong female protagonists. The setting of an alternate version of Africa, using cultures and myths that I wasn’t familiar with, also really set the stories apart for me. The stories are available now in a collection titled Dossouye, and I highly recommend it.
I also loved Tanith Lee’s sword and sorcery, like The Storm Lord and Vazkor, Son of Vazkor, the sequel to The Birthgrave, and her Cyrion stories, which had the main character solving magical mysteries during his adventures. The settings are so lush and rich and detailed, with the feeling of starting out in a strange place, only to follow the characters somewhere much stranger.
I really, really like Glen Cook’s Black Company books. Cook writes people that are just cool, and it’s fun to follow around. And you can’t trust him. I like that.
C.L. Moore’s Jirel of Joiry series.
It was the first time–for me at least–that I had encountered a tough, smart, independent female sword-swinger. Astonishing considering that these stories were published between 1934 and 1939.
- “Black God’s Kiss” (October 1934)
- “Black God’s Shadow” (December 1934)
- “Jirel Meets Magic” (July 1935)
- “The Dark Land” (January 1936)
- “Quest of the Starstone” (November 1937) (with Henry Kuttner)
- “Hellsgarde” (April 1939)
Suffice to say there is a little bit of Jirel in most of my swordswomen–and no few of my sorceresses.
Moore was a fine wordsmith and her work definitely stands up to the passing of time, but where she really shines is in her characterizations. The Jirel stories were not hack-and-slash, they had complicated characters, with complicated emotions. Brilliant stuff.
C.J. Cherryh once said that all of us female sf/f writers are Moore’s daughters, and I am not going to argue with that.
I think the best thing about sword-and-sorcery (as opposed to other kinds of fantasy) is that it tends to cut to the chase. You don’t have to plow through dozens of pages where Schmeglork the Mysterious explains to the bemused pig-tender hero that the world has been darkened by Sauron-clone and his Not-quite-Nazgûl servitors, and that the entire history of the world hinges on the hero’s ability to insert Magical Tab A into Sorcerous Slot B. (Silence, Freudians!) Instead, in sword-and-sorcery, the hero (of either gender) gets thrown in the middle of something and explanations (if any) sneak in later. This is more like ancient or medieval epic and (minus the magic and monsters, or at least with magic and monsters of a different type) more like real life, as well.
There’s no doubt in my mind that Fritz Leiber’s series about Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are the uneven apex of the disreputable S&S mountain. Written over half a century, at different lengths for dramatically different audiences, they (and their heroes) have an odd assortment of vices and virtues. But Leiber was a gifted storyteller and stylist who used the stories to explore what the world is, how it’s made, what the people there are like. Every story takes you someplace different and extends your knowledge–whether the heroes are fighting gods on Rime Isle, ghosts in the unnamed west, or rats or the Thieves’ Guild or advertisers in Lankhmar city, Leiber doesn’t do retreads. And Leiber understands, as few writers do, how horror and humor are two sides of the same coin; likewise love and grief. There’s an internal chronology to the stories that Leiber worked out with some care, but it’s not the order he wrote them in, and I don’t think you have to read them in any particular order. The Swords of Lankhmar or “The Fog of Hate” stand out for me as favorites at the moment–but that might change at the next not-too-far-off rereading.
After Leiber, I’m extremely fond of Zelazny’s Amber series (at least the original five novels), which some don’t consider S&S but Zelazny did. Corwin may technically be a prince, but he’s more like a Raymond Chandler hero tossed into a magic-addled multiverse. Jack Vance’s tales of the Dying Earth are great, too, especially the Cugel stories–some of them grim, some of them hilarious dead-pan humor, and people may not agree on which is which. And I guess I’d add some of Leigh Brackett’s stories here. I know, technically, they’re sword-and-planet or science fantasy… but the boundaries between these genres are thin and permeable. Certainly, the alien technology that Eric John Stark encounters seems to qualify as magic under Clarke’s Law. And Brackett is clearly shouting out to sword-and-sorcery when she calls one of her heroes “Conan” (in “Lorelei of the Red Mists”). For Conan himself: I like Robert E. Howard’s big hero in his sneakier, thievier phases, so my favorite REH stories are “Rogues in the House” and “Tower of the Elephant.”
Hands down my favorite sword and sorcery series is Steven Brust’s Vlad Taltos series. I first discovered these in my teens and they remain one of the few series that I will read over and over. Told in the best first person prose I’ve had the pleasure of reading, it feels as though Vlad is sitting across the table from you and telling you about his adventures. It’s not just the thrilling chases through the streets of Drageara or the competing magic systems that make this compelling but the fact you can see Vlad change as he tells the stories. The plots are complex and the characters are breathtakingly real and flawed.
Sword and sorcery, as a sub-genre of fantasy, is ripe for reinvention. In the past it’s thrived during periods of societal upheaval – the thirties, the sixties – when people yearn for a little simple slashing and hacking to cut down to size the complex, near-magical forces that threaten to overwhelm them.
For me, one of the big strengths of S&S is that it’s slippery. It slithers around the edges of genres – fantasy here, horror there, a touch of SF – reinventing itself to stay relevant to the times. Weird Tales magazine in the thirties remains the spiritual home of sword and sorcery, and Robert E Howard its greatest instigator. He defined many of the tropes that we now recognise through his Conan tales (as well as King Kull, Solomon Kane and others), and they rightly remain at the pinnacle of this sub-genre.
But I’m going to go for one of Howard’s fellow Weird Tales writers, Clark Ashton Smith. While Howard went for straight-forward adventuring in his stories, CAS took an elliptical approach. His tales of Zothique and Hyperborea were often unsettling, and had a dark, horrific flavour with a strong atmosphere of decay and dread. Clark Ashton Smith’s language was poetic, sometimes florid, adding to that strange sense of dislocation. Where you always felt Howard’s heroes would hack their way through the wizards and monsters of his stories, with Clark Ashton Smith there was a sense that the antagonists had the upper hand, and that the triumph of the terrifying and chaotic was the only possible outcome.
Michael Moorcock was the king of the next flowering of S&S, and the man who searched for a name for the sub-genre (it was Fritz Lieber who finally came up with it). In the same way that Howard’s heroes reflected the concerns of the thirties, Moorcock’s mirrored the zeitgeist of the sixties – dissolute outsiders, questioning authority, dabbling in drugs or magic that acts like a drug. He wrote trippy, psychedelic landscapes and his stories always had a dreamlike atmosphere in the imagery he used. Elric would be his uber-hero, but I’m going to go for Dorian Hawkmoon, the protagonist of the Runestaff sequence – partly because it was the first of Moorcock’s work that I read and had a big influence on me as a teen, but also because the stories were more acutely plugged into the mood of the times than Elric.
Moving into the seventies, Marvel took complete command of sword and sorcery in comics. Conan by Thomas, Smith and Buscema is a classic, but I’m going to recommend the King Kull tales here for the lush, detailed illustration by John and Marie Severin. Again there was something slightly more unsettling about them than Conan’s straightforward heroics – shape-shifting lizard people, ghosts and the skull-headed sorceror Thulsa Doom. I spent hours poring over the pages as a kid.
When this question came up, I immediately went to my book shelves to see what sword and sorcery novels and stories have stayed with me since before I became a writer, some of which had a profound influence on me.
I found a few Conans, but I remember that character best from his Marvel comic book adaptations, especially the early ones drawn by Barry Winsor-Smith. “Red Nails” comes to mind as having a great setting – a vast ruined, enclosed city through which the decadent survivors of a great civilization hunt each other in mindless blood-lust.
I’m also reminded of Howard’s King Kull and Soloman Kane (a Puritan swordsman, no less).
However, I was much more influenced by the later, subtler practitioners of the genre. Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories have no doubt already been mentioned for their wit and style. Unlike Howard, they stand up very well over the years. I particularly recommend “The Howling Tower” and “The Sadness of the Executioner,” in which our heroes are singled out by Death but escape, Fafhrd from a berserk warrior (who has just killed Death’s previous victim) and the Mouser from a lovely if equally crazy damsel: “What saved the Mouser then was simply his lifelong antipathy to having anything sharp pointed at him, be it only tiniest needle – or the playfully menacing spikes on exquisite silver breast cups doubtless enclosing exquisite breasts.” As a feminist, I have trouble with the Mouser ravishing said damsel back to her senses, but in the story it works. As Fafhrd says, accidentally barging in on them, “Pardon me. Pray Continue.” A most couth barbarian.
When I came to write my first novel, God Stalk, I deliberately thought, “What would Leiber do?”
Years later, he attended one of my readings. As I continued, his head sank lower and lower. “Oh lord,” I thought. “I’ve put God to sleep.”
Otherwise, I recommend Moorcock’s Elric of Melnibone stories but even more so The Traveler in Black, by John Brunner. Brunner’s traveler has the unnerving power of giving people what they wish for as in “Break the Doors of Hell” then the citizens of a failing empire, instead of tackling their own problems, magic back their ancestors to clean up the mess. Mayhem and poetic irony ensue in equal parts.
I can’t end without mentioning something much more recent: Diana Wynne Jones’ Dark Lord of Derkholm, where an otherwise sane magical world has the rules of sword and sorcery imposed on it by a ruthless entrepreneur conducting tours (see also Jones’ Tough Guide to Fantasyland for the all the topes of the genre).
Two of my favorites are Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar series and Katherine Kurtz’s Camber of Culdi series. Both take place in vividly imagined fantasy worlds with a well-constructed social, political and cultural framework that makes the setting real enough to touch. Both also have well-developed characters and relationships, so that it’s not just one damn battle after another. The magic is logically constructed and consistent, and it both flows from and shapes the world. Because of that, the magic never feels artificially grafted onto the world of the books. The world of the books could not exist as it does without the magic. There’s plenty of action, and the magic plays an important part in the action, but even powerful magic users are not omnipotent, so magic doesn’t become a superpower without limits. Best of all, the world, stories and characters are intricate enough that you can really lose yourself in the plot and world, making for a fine escape.
Brandon was chosen to complete Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. That book, The Gathering Storm will be available in October 2009 and can be sampled on Tor.com.
I’m going to go with Knights of Dark Renown, by David Gemmell. What makes it work? Well, when I want Sword and Sorcery, I tend to want something self-contained. Something I can pick up and rip through in an afternoon, without having to remind myself what happened in previous volumes or worry about future installments. Knights did that for me perfectly, building an excellent mythology while no letting it get in the way of good, old-fashioned face-punching.
“Ill met in Lankhmar” tops any list. How could it not? Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser defined sword & sorcery for me as a child, and I’m thrilled that, having just started rereading their adventures they are thus far holding up. Michael Moorcock’s “Stormbringer” is tied or a close second. I haven’t read that since I was 15 but the Moorcock I have read hasn’t dated. Basically, you don’t know s&s without Leiber and Moorcock.
Howard’s “The Frost Giant’s Daughter” reads like ancient myth, and is my favorite of the Conan tales. Finally CL Moore’s “Black God’s Kiss”, which I only discovered as an adult, mesmerized me with its imagery, an amazing hybrid of Howard’s action with Lovecraft’s imagery that reminded me that s&s got its start in Weird Tales and made me want more Old Weird in contemporary S&S (and more s&s in contemporary Weird Tales!).
And speaking of contemporary, I love James Enge and Scott Lynch for the way they evoke emotions in me now the way Leiber did when I was just beginning to explore the subgenre. Of course, I edit one of them, but I highly recommend both. I also edit Mark Chadbourn’s Swords of Albion in the US, chronicling the adventures of an Elizabethan James Bond in a Cold War struggle with the Fae. It’s quintessential S&S that should take its place in the canon in time.
Nor can I let the opportunity to shamelessly plug Swords & Dark Magic go by. Co-edited with Jonathan Strahan, it’s our forthcoming S&S anthology of all original tales from writers like Steven Erikson, Scott Lynch, Joe Abercrombie, Gene Wolf, Glen Cook, Michael Moorcock, CJ Cherryh, Tanith Lee, Robert Silverberg, Greg Keyes…
Okay, I’ll stop but obviously S&S has been on the brain here lately. Glad it’s making a resurgence.
Filed under: Mind Meld
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